WASHINGTON -- Kentucky's hemp bill became law over the weekend, when Gov. Steve Beshear (D) opted not to act on it, bringing a successful end to the measure's winding path through the state Legislature.
"I strongly support efforts to create additional legal cash crops for our farm communities," Beshear said of his decision on SB 50, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader. "At the same time, we have a tremendous drug problem in Kentucky, and I want to make sure that we don't do anything that will increase that drug problem. I still share the same concerns our law enforcement officers have about the impact hemp cultivation may have on our drug eradication efforts."
Beshear had been one of the last obstacles to the measure becoming law. It had passed through the state House and Senate after lengthy deliberations and persistent opposition from the Kentucky law enforcement community.
Kentucky police have expressed concerns that legalizing hemp production could give cover to potential growers of illegal marijuana, which looks similar to hemp but whose strains contain higher levels of the psychoactive agent tetrahydrocannabinol. Experts have rejected this suggestion, claiming that the two strains would cross-pollinate if cultivated in close proximity, devaluing the more potent and more profitable variety. Both the law enforcement community and Beshear remained unconvinced until the end, however, although the governor's reservations were apparently not significant enough to cause him to veto the legislation.
With industrial hemp now legal at the state level, Kentucky must now wait for federal action to approve the crop's planting and harvesting. Under federal law, the plant is a Schedule I substance, alongside heroin and PCP, despite the fact that it typically possesses only 0.3 percent THC, compared to the 3 percent to 22 percent usually found in illegal marijuana strains.
"The bottom line is that Senate Bill 50 won't allow industrial hemp to be grown or sold unless and until the federal government takes the very big step of legalizing the crop in some way," Beshear said, according to Kentucky's News Democrat Leader. "If that happens, we will have time to work with the legislature and law enforcement to make any further changes necessary to ensure the public's safety and alleviate those concerns."
Kentucky's U.S. Sens. Rand Paul (R) and Mitch McConnell (R) have promised to work toward a federal solution to allow the state to cultivate hemp. Both senators are sponsoring federal legislation to remove hemp from the Drug Enforcement Administration's list of illicit drugs. Members of Kentucky's congressional delegation have also signed on to a similar effort in the House. And in case those efforts fail, as they have in the past, both Paul and McConnell have also vowed to seek a waiver from the DEA to allow Kentucky to grow hemp.
Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, one of the state's most vocal supporters of the push to legalize hemp, recently said he'd help his state's senators apply pressure.
"In May of this year, I plan to lead a bipartisan delegation to Washington, D.C., to pursue a permit that would allow Kentucky to be the first state to grow industrial hemp and benefit from the jobs that will result," Comer said. "I also thank Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul and Representatives Thomas Massie and John Yarmuth for their support here at home and for sponsoring legislation in Congress. Our shared vision is to create new opportunities for our farmers and to own the industrial hemp market ... from automobile parts manufacturing and textiles to cosmetics and health foods. We now have a unified message that Kentucky wants to be first!"
Eric Steenstra, president of hemp advocacy group Vote Hemp, hailed the bill's passage as proof that Kentucky was on its way to being the first state to tap into a "U.S. hemp industry valued at an estimated $500 million in annual retail sales."
As Vote Hemp notes in its press release, Kentucky is not the first state to push for industrial hemp at the state level, only to encounter crippling setbacks due to federal strictures.
To date, thirty-one states have introduced pro-hemp legislation and nineteen have passed such legislation. Eight states (Colorado, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia) have defined industrial hemp as distinct and removed barriers to its production. Three states (Hawaii, Kentucky and Maryland) have passed bills creating commissions or authorizing hemp research. Nine states (California, Colorado, Illinois, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Vermont and Virginia) have passed hemp resolutions. Six states (Arkansas, Maine, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina and Vermont) have passed hemp study bills. However, despite state authorization to grow hemp, farmers in those states still risk raids by federal agents, prison time, and property and civil asset forfeiture if they plant the crop, due to the failure of federal policy to distinguish non-drug oilseed and fiber varieties of Cannabis (i.e., industrial hemp) from psychoactive drug varieties (i.e., "marihuana.")
For more on the status of hemp legislation on both the state and federal level, click over to Vote Hemp.